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Jets Defense About to Conclude Its Quantum Leap from 32nd to Top 5 in the NFL 

In Year 2 of Robert Saleh/Jeff Ulbrich Scheme, 'We're Playing Real Football, Not Playing on the Blackboard'


Over the course of an NFL season, especially on defense where great play can be fleeting and perfection is never achieved in an offensive-minded league, it can seem as if a team isn't doing as well as it actually is.

Take the Jets' defense. All Green & White followers know the unit has played well — make that very well — this season. But this finding from NFL Media Researchers, which was circulated earlier this season, takes on historic meaning now that it's been disseminated again with the Jets taking on the Dolphins in their season finale Sunday:

The Jets will become the first team in the Super Bowl era to rank top 10 in scoring & total defense the season after finishing last in both categories - 2021 NYJ allowed 29.6 PPG & 397.6 total YPG (both last in NFL) - 2022 NYJ have allowed 19.1 PPG & 311.6 total YPG (both top 5 in NFL) - The 4 previous instances occurred in 1955 or earlier when there were 12 or fewer teams in the NFL in each of those seasons

That's a stunning improvement, but one that hardly surprises head coach Robert Saleh, who presided over a similar rise up the ranks when he was San Francisco's defensive coordinator. The 49ers leaped from 24th in total yards allowed in 2017, his first season in the job, to 13th and then to second in '19. And understanding what he and his players put into these major upgrades on both coasts, he's not about to unilaterally give veterans like LB C.J. Mosley time off at Miami.

"C.J.'s had a remarkable year and he's earned the right to finish this the way he wants to," Saleh said. "So if he wants to play, he's going to play. And especially the defense has a lot to look forward to. It's a top-five defense coming from where it was a year ago. I think it's got an opportunity to go finish the season strong."

The rankings don't stop at top-five. The Jets go in against Miami's potentially explosive passing game sporting the No. 4 defense in total yards allowed, No. 2 in yards/play, No. 2 in net passing yards allowed and No. 3 in yards/pass play.

And one bit of round-number trivia stands out about the pass defense: The Jets are the only team in the NFL this season to not allow a 300-yard passer. Jets defenses have allowed no 300-yard passers before, most recently in 2005. They also were scorched by four such passers in the first year of the Saleh/Jeff Ulbrich defense last year and six such passers in 2020.

How did this defensive metamorphosis happen? Two thoughtful Jets defensive tackles had some theories.

"We've got a lot of good players; man," Pro Bowl selection Quinnen Williams said. "When you get a stat like that, that's a testament to every single person on the defense and on the coaching staff."

"My initial thought is I'm not surprised," next-door D-line neighbor Sheldon Rankins said in pondering the trampoline leap from 32nd to fourth. "I feel like we've always had everything we needed to play that style of defense and that dominant of a defense. Obviously, the accumulation of talent definitely plays a part in it, too, but just for a lot of the guys who are second year in this scheme, it's understanding the nuances of what's being asked of you.

"It takes a while to get the feel and rhythm of it," he said. "And I think that's where it is this year, where everybody understands what's being asked of them. Now they're finding ways to make it their own and tweak it and make it work for them. ... Now we're playing real football and not playing on the blackboard."

Ulbrich as the D-coordinator is also not surprised at the 16 games down and won't be stunned if this defense rebounds from giving up those three explosive first-quarter plays at Seattle and still having recent issues securing takeaways. He expects an appropriate finish for his pride and joy, no matter what's at stake for the Jets in Game 17.

"I look at this group as a group that's just so internally motivated," Ulbrich said. "They're motivated not to let the guy down next to them, regardless of what we're playing for. Whether it's a playoff berth or a contract, we approach it the same way. And I have a lot of faith in the guys in that room that they're going to fight regardless.

"The standard's the standard. And when you cross the white line, you live up to that standard."